As a producer, Gary Kurtz laid claim to helping shape one of the most influential properties in the history of motion pictures. Kurtz's early work included various duties for producers like Roger Corman and such directors as Monte Hellman on B-movies like "Ride in the Whirlwind" (1965) and "Two Lane Blacktop" (1971). Through fellow Corman disciple Francis Ford Coppola, he met young filmmaker George Lucas, who later hired him to produce his classic ode to 1960s teen car culture, "American Graffiti" (1973). The duo worked so well together that their collaborative efforts continued on Lucas' epic science-fiction masterpiece, "Star Wars" (1977) and its sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). Differences in creative vision, however, soon put an end to the partnership, and Kurtz left Lucas to produce such artistically impressive - albeit commercially disastrous - features as "The Dark Crystal" (1982) and "Return to Oz" (1985). Over the years that followed, Kurtz worked less frequently, producing the little-seen sci-fi thriller "Slipstream" (1989) and seen on camera as an interviewee for a documentary about his former partner's dubious legacy amongst his own fans, "The People vs. George Lucas" (2010). Although his later career yielded little of lasting note, Kurtz would remain a key figure in what was widely considered the apex of the "Star Wars" saga by followers endlessly fascinated by the franchise's convoluted history.
Born July 27, 1940, young Kurtz grew up in Los Angeles. Initially interested in a career in music, he later studied film at the University of Southern California from 1959 to 1962, and upon graduation, found work as a cameraman in the often grueling arena of industrial films. Before long, he began picking up production manager or assistant director positions on several low-budget films directed and produced by famed B-movie king, Roger Corman. Among these features were such films as "Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet" (1965) "Queen of Blood" (1966) and most notably, the Monte Hellman-directed "Ride in the Whirlwind" (1965), a Western written by and starring a young Jack Nicholson. During this time, Kurtz met another talented young film director named Francis Ford Coppola who also worked for Corman as the writer-director of the horror film "Dementia 13" (1963).
But as was the case with many young American men at the time, Kurtz's career was put on hold when he was drafted into military service by the U.S. Marine Corps. As a conscientious objector, he was assigned duties as a combat cameraman and served a three-year tour of duty in Vietnam. Once safely back home, Kurtz returned to low-budget filmmaking. He partnered again with Hellman on "Two Lane Blacktop" (1971), a road movie starring folk singer James Taylor and Warren Oates, this time in the role of associate producer. The low-budget Universal film was shot in Techniscope, a specialty film format that put Kurtz back in touch with Coppola for use of the equipment. Coppola, in turn, recommended Kurtz to his protégé at the time, George Lucas, and a fateful relationship began. Kurtz also went on to produce the little-seen detective thriller "Chandler" (1971) that same year, which also starred Oates.
A few years later, Kurtz was called upon by Lucas to produce his 1960s coming-of-age tale, "American Graffiti" (1973). It short order, Kurtz became a trusted and valuable right-hand man to Lucas, as the small production struggled with a rigorous all-night shooting schedule and - with the exception of former child star Ron Howard - mostly inexperienced actors. Budgeted at $700,000, the film - featuring such future stars as Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford - grossed over $50 million and long held the record for the most profitable film in history. Their working relationship secure, Kurtz next worked with Lucas on his dream project - a sci-fi film originally intended as a "Flash Gordon"-type homage - which went on to become "Star Wars" (1977). Again, Kurtz proved invaluable to Lucas, helping sell the otherworldly concept to a skeptical Twentieth Century Fox, running interference with a persnickety British film crew, and managing the development of entirely new photographic technology to generate the mind-blowing special effects.
The astounding success of "Star Wars" brought massive personal fortunes to both Lucas and Kurtz. They collaborated again on its sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980). For the second installment, Kurtz came up with the title and supervised production in England, even shooting second unit himself while Lucas remained in the U.S. to oversee the increasingly complex visual effects. Having bankrolled the entire movie himself in order to maintain complete control, Lucas' financial exposure put stress on the production and his relationship with Kurtz. Nevertheless, "Empire" was a monster hit, earning Lucas all of his money back and more. Although the much darker sequel confused some critics and fans at the time, these same people would later reevaluate "Empire" as the superior film of the original trilogy, due in no small part to Kurtz's creative vision, among other notable contributions from Lucas, director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.
Unfortunately, due to increasingly divergent opinions about the future direction of the "Star Wars" franchise, Lucas elected to part ways with Kurtz. As Lucas continued his space saga with new collaborators, Kurtz, still brimming with ideas, moved on to his own projects. First among them was "The Dark Crystal" (1982), which he produced for Muppets creator and the film's director, Jim Henson. Despite impressive effects and then state-of-the-art puppetry, the dark fantasy tale failed to capture the imagination of audiences more accustomed to whimsy and humor from Henson. Kurtz followed with producing duties on "Return to Oz" (1985), an unofficial sequel to the MGM film, directed by Walter Murch and starring a young Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. Decidedly darker in tone than the Judy Garland film and following the books by L. Frank Baum more closely, it met with little enthusiasm at the box office. Both personally and professionally, times remained difficult for Kurtz when his marriage ended in 1986. Between a divorce settlement, court payments and failed business ventures, he had lost almost the entire $10 million he earned from "Star Wars."
Kurtz returned to the producer's chair four years later with a low-budget sci-fi thriller, "Slipstream" (1989), starring Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill and up-and-comer Bill Paxton. Other sporadic work included the U.K. crime drama "The Steal" (1994) and, following decade-long sabbatical, executive producer duties on the television movie "The Tale of Jack Frost" (BBC, 2004). Channeling his experiences during those early heady days with Lucas, Kurtz returned to filmmaking, producing the indie film, "5-25-77" (2006), which follows the exploits of 1977-era teenagers as they ready themselves to see "Star Wars" for the first time - an event which, much like in real life, goes on to both capture their imaginations and change their lives. Later, Kurtz was given the opportunity to air his grievances with his former collaborator in "The People vs. George Lucas" (2010), a clever documentary that examined the growing disenchantment fans of "Star Wars" felt for the man who created the beloved film franchise but felt he needed to tinker and tweak it via CGI throughout the years, making the original installments unavailable to fans.
By Matthew Reynolds and Bryce Coleman